Frozen shoulder is a condition that gets its name from the way it causes a gradual stiffening of the shoulder joint, ‘freezing it up’. The proper term for this condition is adhesive capsulitis – adhesive implying stuck and capsulitis meaning inflammation of the capsule.
Although a very common condition affecting approximately 2% of the population, the exact cause of frozen shoulder remains a mystery. In most cases there is a trigger such as straining the shoulder that then develops into a frozen shoulder, but in many cases it is idiopathic i.e. it just happens. When it is triggered, the capsule – that is the connective tissue sack – that surrounds the shoulder joint undergoes a change in elasticity from being somewhat loose and stretchy to being tight and without much stretch.
When it does happen, it follows a distinct pattern of which there are three stages.
The first stage is the freezing stage and is characterized by the onset of a quite intense pain in the shoulder and upper arm and a gradual seizing up of the shoulder. It becomes very difficult and painful to lift the arm up, rotate it outwards, or reach behind your back. This stage typically lasts about 3-6 months then frozen shoulder moves into stage two, the frozen stage, in which the pain starts to subside but the stiffness remains. The shoulder will begin to feel more comfortable in stage 2 but as it is still very stiff, its function remains limited. Again stage 2 can last anywhere between 3 and 6 months before progressing onto stage 3, the thawing stage, when the stiffness finally begins to resolve and the shoulder range of motion is restored.
Although every frozen shoulder will go through these 3 stages, the duration of each stage can vary in each case. Most of the time a full recovery will be made but occasionally full pain-free range of motion does not return. In order to optimize recovery, physiotherapy can help to restore range of motion with techniques such as mobilizations and muscle energy techniques. A prescribed home exercise program is also important so that you can work on stretching the shoulder every day at home. Along with this there are many treatments the physiotherapist is able to do to help control the pain particularly in the early stages of frozen shoulder. This will enable a much more effective stretching regime, which can ultimately lead to a quick and fuller recovery.